A former top official at the National Security Agency says the Islamic State terrorist group has “clearly” capitalized on the voluminous leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and is exploiting the top-secret disclosures to evade U.S. intelligence.
Bottom line: Islamic State killers are harder to find because they know how to avoid detection.
Chris Inglis was the NSA’s deputy director during Mr. Snowden’s flood of documents to the news media last year. Mr. Snowden disclosed how the agency eavesdrops, including spying on Internet communications such as emails and on the Web’s ubiquitous social media.
The top-secret spill has proven ready-made for the Islamic State (also referred to as ISIL or ISIS). It relies heavily on Internet channels to communicate internally and to spread propaganda.
Mr. Snowden “went way beyond disclosing things that bore on privacy concerns,” said Mr. Inglis, who retired in January. “‘Sources and methods’ is what we say inside the intelligence community — the means and methods we use to hold our adversaries at risk, and ISIL is clearly one of those.
“Having disclosed all of those methods, or at least some degree of those methods, it would be impossible to imagine that, as intelligent as they are in the use of technology, in the employment of communications for their own purposes, it’s impossible to imagine that they wouldn’t understand how they might be at risk to intelligence services around the world, not the least of which is the U.S. And they necessarily do what they think is in their best interest to defend themselves,” he said.
Another former official also bemoans the damage Mr. Snowden has done.
Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden ran the NSA when al Qaeda struck on Sept. 11, 2001. He moved to modernize technology and methodology in an agency that some internal critics said “had gone deaf” in the 1990s.
“The changed communications practices and patterns of terrorist groups following the Snowden revelations have impacted our ability to track and monitor these groups,” said Mr. Hayden, who writes a bimonthly column for The Times.
Matthew G. Olsen, who directs the National Counterterrorism Center, supports Mr. Hayden’s assessment.
“Following the disclosure of the stolen NSA documents, terrorists are changing how they communicate to avoid surveillance. They are moving to more secure communications platforms, using encryption and avoiding electronic communications altogether,” Mr. Olsen, a former NSA general counsel, said Wednesday at the Brookings Institution. “This is a problem for us in many areas where we have limited human collection and depend on intercepted communications to identify and disrupt plots.”
A former military official said some Islamic State operators have virtually disappeared, giving no hint as to their whereabouts or actions.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, an Iraqi devoted to former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, is known to practice evasive tradecraft that undoubtedly improved because of Mr. Snowden’s disclosures.
A former military intelligence official said the U.S. thought it had killed him several times when he was a chieftain in al Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the Islamic State. The U.S. later discovered he had passed his communication devices to another terrorist whom intelligence agencies tracked thinking he was the man who then went by the name Abu Dura.